Friday, April 18, 2014

The Only Apostle on the Hill

Have you ever asked why was St. John the Evangelist was the only Apostle to stand at the foot of the Cross with the Blessed Mother and other female disciples? The other Apostles, overcome by cowardice, fled for a reason. Indeed, they had reason to be frightened. After all, there were real dangers being in associated with Christ-crucified. At worst, they could have been charged of treason and blasphemy as a kind of accomplice to Jesus; a partner in crime, so to speak. And at the very least, the Apostles could have been thrown out of the synagogue and forbidden to worship in the Jewish Temple. With these dangers lurking, the Apostles were wholly unprepared for martyrdom. They were understandably overcome with cowardice.

But St. John the Evangelist was different. Fr. Cornelius Lapide, a sixteenth century Scripture scholar, said, “John alone remained fearlessly and firmly with Mary at the cross, amidst all the insolence and reviling of the Jews. He therefore deserved to be adopted by Jesus as His brother, and to be put in His room as the son of the Virgin Mother.” For John, the willingness to die with Christ on the hill merited a special gift. And that singular gift was the Mother of God. As an early Christian writer, Theophylact, said, “The pure is entrusted to the pure.” And as another early Christian theologian, Nonnus, paraphrases it: “O Mother, thou lover of virginity, behold thy virgin son; and on the other hand He said to His disciple, O thou lover of virginity, Behold a virgin who is thy parent, without giving thee birth.”

Just as two virgins were given to each other by God with the betrothal of Joseph and Mary at the beginning of the Gospel story; likewise, two virgins were given to each other at the end of the Gospel story on hill. In fact, it was this virginal purity that occasioned the heroism of St. John and the Blessed Mother. With moral purity, heroic love is possible. And it is only love and a clean conscience that inspires martyr-like strength. Mind you, it wasn’t the men who boasted of dying with Jesus that made it to the hill on Good Friday.

Before Pentecost, the other Apostles were marked by conventional wisdom and human prudence. For Nathanael, he just couldn’t believe that anything good could come from Nazareth. Peter, it can be argued, bought into the nationalized idea that the Messiah should be a warrior-king who would triumph over Rome. With this, he tried to dissuade our Lord from identifying himself as the Suffering Servant. For Philip, he failed to grasp that Jesus, as the Son of God, was one in being with the Father. This is why the Apostle asked our Lord at the Last Supper: "Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us." And of course, even after most of the Apostles had seen the Risen Lord, it wasn’t enough for Thomas. He doubted until he saw Jesus with his one eyes and touched him with his own fingers.

These human imperfections may explain why Nathanael, Peter, Philip and Thomas were nowhere to be found on Good Friday. They did what human prudence dictated: they hid! They played it safe!

But the child-like innocence of St. John, the beloved disciple of the Master, inspired something beyond human prudence and conventional wisdom.  After all, it was he, the only Apostle out of the twelve, that exposed himself to all sorts of dangers! And it is no coincidence that this same Apostle wrote about God’s love more than any of the sacred writers of the New Testament. It was this "beloved disciple" of the Lord who understood the secret of heroism; and what lies behind heroism is pure, unadulterated love.  This kind of  love helps us to see in the darkness. In fact, in his first letter he wrote, “Whoever loves his brother remains in the light, and there is nothing in him to cause a fall.” (I John 2:10) And on Good Friday, he did not fall because he was already a sharer in that light.

Can it be that in some small way the young Apostle shared in the purity of Mary? And that moral purity of these two virginal souls is that which made them blind to dangers and all of the foolish dictates of conventional wisdom. As St. Bernard wrote to his former pupil, Pope Eugenius: “What is more precious, what more calm, and what freer from care than a good conscience? It fears not losses, it fears not reproaches, it fears not bodily tortures, for it is exalted rather than cast down by death itself.”

Moral purity allows us to see the true value of things; what ditches are worth dying in, which ones are not. It helps us to lay hold of our reward in heaven and even the benefits of a virtuous life on earth. It takes for granted that no material gain or social advantage can be a worthy substitute for peace of soul...a peace that comes from knowing Christ.  And with this, the soul does not flinch from suffering and even death.

This is why St. John the Apostle was the only Apostle who was brave enough to climb the hill with our Savior on Good Friday. This is why he was blessed to inherit the Mother of our Lord as his own mother.

St. John rose above the limitations of his apostolic companions on Good Friday because he, like Mary, was pure. And purity makes heroic love possible.